Associated is a bi-weekly podcast and film column created by The Varsity’s associate Arts & Culture editors, Daniel Konikoff and Jacob Lorinc. They’ll be rounding up and reviewing the latest movies making their way into theatres. On the bill for this week is Christopher Nolan’s Interstellar, Bill Hader’s heart- warming comedy The Skeleton Twins, and the mindbending Birdman.
Associated, Episode 1
Associated is a bi-weekly podcast and film column created by The Varsity’s associate Arts & Culture editors, Daniel Konikoff and Jacob Lorinc.
Give me some sugar
Some students are turning to “Sugar Daddies” to fund their university tuition
“[Bind] me up with rope and physically hit me,” read the message. As a new user of dating website SeekingArrangement, the blunt proposition for BDSM was initially only mildly shocking to Elaine* — until she read the accompanying price tag.
Elaine, a U of T student, is a rookie “Sugar Baby” — a young woman looking to cover the costs of tuition by dating men she meets online, and receiving money in exchange.
The request, introduced as a “non-sexual arrangement,” came from a 34-year-old Mississauga man with a net worth higher than that of most of her classmates combined.
The site, which describes itself as “the leading Sugar Daddy dating site where over 3.6 million members fuel mutually beneficial relationships on their terms,” was founded in 2006 and now boasts 2.6 million “Sugar Babies” and one million “Sugar Mommas.”
The site claims to have eight ‘Sugar Babies’ per “Sugar Daddy,” and supposedly offers numerous benefits for “Sugar Babies,” including financial stability and mentorship.
Seeking alternative employment
While 63 per cent of Canadian students rely on income from employment to cover tuition, a select group of young women and men have found that seeking out “Sugar Daddies” is a more attractive option.
SeekingArrangement, along with other similar websites, mirrors conventional dating sites with a “mutually beneficial” twist. Providing what it describes as “relationships on your terms,” it matches young women — many of whom make under $34,000 a year — with older, wealthier men called “Sugar Daddies.”
In exchange for dates and other romantic interactions, the women can receive money from their male companions, as well as travel, gifts, accommodation and other accoutrements of privilege.
For some women, meeting men on SeekingArrangement provides access to a lifestyle few University of Toronto students can dream of. While exact financial terms aren’t explicitly set, most women indicate their desired “assistance level” on their profile. “Expectation” amounts range from one to 10 thousand dollars monthly.
“Sugar Daddies” in Toronto
Since setting up a SeekingArrangement profile, Elaine has received romantic offers ranging from the earnest to the bizarre, including offers of casual dating, more serious commitments, and long-distance relationships.
Although she hasn’t gone on any dates yet, one man went so far as to propose giving Elaine a “monthly allowance” of $2,000 for an on-going commitment. Others proposed fetishism.
While women make up the majority of “Sugar Babies” on the site, Jake*, a third-year U of T student, joined to pay off his debt.
According to a 2013 Bank of Montreal survey, female Canadian post-secondary students graduate with about $30,000 in debt, on average, while male Canadian post-secondary students graduate with about $22,000.
In the past, Jake worked multiple part-time jobs throughout the school year to support himself, but was concerned about how they affected his academics. He said that SeekingArrangement is less taxing than certain standard minimum wage jobs.
Also apprehensive about meeting potential ‘Sugar Daddies’ in person, he has so far only considered offers for long-distance relationships.
One man offered him a monthly stipend just for regular Skype dates.
Jake said that while the man seemed friendly and sincere throughout their initial Skype call, he’s still unsure as to whether he’ll contact him again.
Elaine and Jake are far from alone.
According to Brock Urick, a public relations manager with SeekingArrangement, university students represent the site’s largest demographic — with over one million profiles registered to university-affiliated email addresses.
While Urick said that SeekingArrangement doesn’t “track patterns of use per se,” he said it’s a safe bet that a majority of university students who use the site are paying for their schooling and graduating debt-free.
Toronto is a good place to be a “Sugar Baby.” According to Toronto Life, Toronto’s “Sugar Daddies” earn, on average, north of $250,000 a year and have an average self-reported net worth of $5.3 million.
They also spend a little over $4,000 a month on their “Sugar Babies.”
Despite the temptation of easy money, Elaine said she isn’t looking for anything serious. “If I were going to do any type of arrangement it would have to be in a public place,” she said.
So far, she is apprehensive about the site and the types of messages she has received.
Causes and impacts
Elaine’s sentiment is echoed by Chris Glover, a Toronto Public School trustee and adjunct professor of education and public policy at York University.
A researcher on student debt and its impacts in the age of neo-liberalism, Glover sees student involvement in dating sites such as SeekingArrangement as symptomatic of post-secondary education’s underfunding by the government.
Pointing to U of T’s tuition fees in the 1990s, which hovered around $2,500 a year for most programs, Glover bemoaned the current situation. Today, it costs about $6,000 a year for domestic arts & science students.
Ontario has the highest tuition fees and lowest per-student funding in Canada.
Well over half of Canadian students rely on personal savings and earnings from part-time work to collectively cover about half of their tuition, according to Statistics Canada.
Glover is concerned about the effects of this financial stress on students’ integrity and emotional health.
“Nobody should ever be coerced… to pay for their education by selling sex,” he said, pointing to a provincial government decision in the late 1990s to deregulate tuition fees, which subsequently sent them soaring towards their present levels.
While discussion around sites like SeekingArrangement largely revolves around ethical questions, the legal ramifications are also a concern.
According to Brenda Cossman, professor of law and director of U of T’s centre for sexual diversity studies, there isn’t a clear answer as to whether use of SeekingArrangement constitutes prostitution.
Cossman said that ‘Sugar Daddy’ websites offer an array of possibilities for interaction — ranging from an explicit exchange of money for sex to an ongoing relationship where sex is simply part of the equation.
“If it’s the former, it could run into the same legal problems as prostitution,” said Cossman.
Bill C-36, a federal government bill tabled in June, makes it a crime to “obtain for consideration… the sexual services of a person.”
It also makes it a crime to “[receive] a financial or other material benefit, knowing that it is obtained by or derived directly or indirectly” from the sale of a “sexual service.”
*Names changed at students’ request.
Privacy breach at UTAPS
179 files containing sensitive information about students’ funding sent to unintended recipients
On October 29, some students received e-mails from the University of Toronto enrollment services indicating that they were awarded funding through University of Toronto Advanced Planning for Students (UTAPS) only to find that they had also been sent 179 files containing sensitive information that was not theirs.
UTAPS grants are available to full-time students who are Canadian citizens, protected persons, or full-time residents.
Individuals who have already applied for government student loans through the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP) are automatically considered for extra funds through UTAPS. Awards are granted based on individual need.
The 179 files that were inadvertently distributed contained students’ names, street addresses, award amounts, student numbers, and faculties of study.
The leak of student information immediately raised questions about the security of the university’s communication procedures.
Talisa*, a first-year nursing student who received the e-mail, was shocked to discover the mistake. “I’ve never gotten UTAPS before and I was just thinking: ‘Do they usually send this out to everyone [at once]?’”
Talisa initially opened a number of attachments expecting to find her own, before she realized that she was invading fellow students’ privacy by doing so. “I could tell now how much someone needs money — that’s pretty confidential,” she said.
When Talisa called Enrollment Services, she was disappointed to find that staff were unapologetic about the error and tensely asked her to delete the e-mail immediately.
This same request was repeated to all students who received the initial email in an emailed apology from Donna Wall, director, Financial Aid and Awards in enrollment services later that day.
Talisa expressed concern that details of the grants were sent out by email. “There should be something secure to log onto… rather than sending it in an email that is clearly more prone to these problems,” she said, citing the fact that OSAP operates this way.
Talisa noted that the lapse in security was particularly surprising given the high standard usually afforded for student confidentiality on campus. “When you call the financial aid [office] at U of T… they won’t even discuss financial issues with you over the phone because it’s not confidential enough,” she said.
According to Richard Levin, executive director of enrollment services, the leak occurred due to a coding error in the program that matched the emails with the attachments. “We are reviewing our quality assurance mechanisms and will make whatever changes are required to prevent future occurrences,” Levin said.
Levin maintained that the university responded to the privacy breach appropriately, by asking students to delete the emails without passing on any information contained in them. “The University takes the privacy of our students very seriously,” he said. “This is an accepted, sound privacy practice for this kind of occurrence.”
To some affected students, however, the situation has not been sufficiently addressed.
Talisa said that some classmates are looking into taking legal action against the university in response to the error, but did not reveal their names.
In the event of a lawsuit, she said she would be willing to support her friends.
In 2013, lawyers in Windsor filed a $600-million class-action lawsuit on behalf of post-secondary students in Windsor and Essex County who took out OSAP loans between 2000 and 2006. The students’ privacy were compromised when federal employees misplaced hard drives containing sensitive personal information.
Talisa has not yet deleted the email in question. Talisa received a follow-up email on November 5 from Wall, asking her once again to delete the email. She has not yet responded. “[The] only reason I haven’t deleted it is to keep this evidence,” she said.
“I think they haven’t done enough to address the issue. After all, not only is my personal information out there, but if I had someone I didn’t like on campus who also got UTAPS, they now know exactly where I live,” Talisa said.
In the meantime, Talisa is still waiting for an adequate explanation and apology from the university. “They should at least have said… we are to blame for it. It won’t happen again,” she said.
*Name changed at student’s request.
“XAO forces us to think about the realities of our campus”
eXpression Against Oppression (XAO) challenges students to combat oppression on campus
From November 3 to 12, the University of Toronto Students’ Union (UTSU) and the Arts and Science Students’ Union (ASSU) are hosting the annual eXpression Against Oppression (XAO), a series of events aimed at tackling social justice issues at U of T and bringing them to the forefront of student attention.
This year, XAO programming included a screening of the film Polytechnique, an open-mic night, and self-defense workshops.
New to the programming this year was an inclusive dance event, organized in partnership with LGBT Salsa and held at the newly opened Goldring Centre for High Performance Sport.
“I originally noticed this campus group during Queer Orientation, however they did not get the attention they deserved due to multiple programming on the same day,” said Najiba Ali Sardar, UTSU vice-president, equity.
According to Ali Sardar, XAO allows students to learn about oppression, which is an issue she says is often left out of academic curricula.
“XAO forces us to think about the realities of our campus, to open our minds, and to find ways to combat the various forms of oppression we, as well as our peers, face,” Ali Sardar added.
Alycia Hawkes, an upper-year equity studies student, said events like XAO are a good start in creating an equitable campus environment, but asked that there is still more work to be done.
“I love the fact that students are drawing attention to the important issue of oppression on and off campus. Beginning the discussion is a huge first step, and I am proud to be part of a student body that takes initiative to work towards a more equitable campus life,” Hawkes said., adding, “That being said, we need to remember to not limit the spirit of the event to one week of activities on campus. The university needs to take an active role in working to solve the issues addressed by students year-round.”
A highlight of the week was the keynote address given by American journalist Ta-Nehisi Coates in an event jointly hosted by the ASSU, the Munk School of Global Affairs, the Faculty of Arts & Science, the UTSU, and the history department.
Coates, a national correspondent for The Atlantic, writes about culture, politics, and social issues.
The topic of his lecture was to argue that African Americans have been subjected to systemic racism and economic exploitation up to the present day, and that the American government should be prepared to pay reparations.
Coates’ groundbreaking article, “The Case for Reparations,” was published in June 2014.
In both the article and his lecture at U of T, Coates argued that racism towards African Americans involved economic exploitation that enriched other groups in American society, and was not simply a matter of prejudice.
“White supremacy is not merely the work of hotheaded demagogues, or a matter of false consciousness, but a force so fundamental to America that it is difficult to imagine the country without it,” Coates wrote in the article.
The lecture was held in an effort to “cause our students and the community to engage critically and discuss issues pertinent to our society and the world,” said ASSU president Abdullah Shihipar, continuing, “We wanted to bring a big speaker who would spark such a conversation, and we thought Ta-Nehisi Coates was perfect for this.”
“Canada is not immune from dealing with issues of privilege and the marginalization of certain groups. Hearing about the context in the United States may help us learn about how to deal with such issues in Canada,” he added.
Coates’ work explores the history of racism towards African Americans, covering widely known topics like slavery and Jim Crow, and lesser-known topics like discrimination against black homeowners in mid-twentieth-century Chicago.
He wrote that, even into the twenty-first century, “the notion that black lives, black bodies, and black wealth were rightful targets remained deeply rooted in the broader society.”
Neither the article nor the lecture made specific claims as to how the payment of reparations would occur.
Rather, Coates is a vocal supporter of H.R. 40, a bill introduced in the House of Representatives in January 2013 that would establish “the Commission to Study Reparation Proposals for African Americans to examine slavery and discrimination in the colonies and the United States from 1619 to the present and recommend appropriate remedies.”
Correction: An earlier version of this article stated that this year’s XAO was the fifth annual. In fact, XAO has run annually since at least 2000.
UTAM trailed median Canadian university investment returns from 2002 to 2012
2012 CAUBO report tracked pension fund, endowment returns for nearly 70 Canadian universities
Depending on whom one asks, the University of Toronto’s investments are either performing significantly better than they had in the past, or are losing millions in opportunity cost with an appreciable risk of losing more.
The Varsity obtained a copy of a 2012 Canadian Association of University Business Officers (CAUBO) survey that provided data on investment performance for nearly 70 Canadian universities.
The survey included information on the University of Toronto Asset Management Corporation (UTAM), a wholly-owned university subsidiary that manages both U of T’s endowment and pension funds.
UTAM was founded in 2000 as a vehicle through which U of T could attempt to pursue greater investment returns than it could with passive investment management. The corporation hires other investment management firms to invest the university’s endowment and pension funds.
In the 10 years leading up to December 31, 2012, UTAM posted an annualized rate of return of 5.2 per cent on U of T’s endowment and five per cent on the pension fund.
Over the same period, the median return among institutions with endowments of over $100 million and pension funds worth more than $500 million were six per cent and 7.1 per cent, respectively.
At first glance, then, over the 10 year period, UTAM seemed to under-perform in comparison to its peers.
DIFFERENT RISK AND RETURN TARGETS
Althea Blackburn-Evans, U of T director of media relations, cautioned against taking this conclusion at face value: “It is natural to think you can simply compare different institutions’ investment returns to measure comparative performance,” she said.
Blackburn-Evans noted that the performance of a Canadian university fund is a function not only of investor skill and market conditions, but also the risk and return targets of the client.
For this reason, rather than competing directly against other university funds, UTAM compares its performance to a benchmark portfolio that it constructs specifically for those purposes.
Ettore Damiano, professor of economics and the University of Toronto Faculty Association (UTFA) representative on UTAM’s board of directors, also noted that data in the CAUBO report are self-reported.
Therefore, he said, it is difficult to draw effective comparisons from the report for a number of reasons.
For instance, some institutions may report their gains net of management fees — as UTAM does — while others may not.
Further, UTAM’s investment performance has improved.
In the five-year period ending June 30, 2014, UTAM reported that its returns on both the endowment and pension fund outperformed the hypothetical benchmark portfolio — 10.18 per cent compared to 9.13 per cent.
According to the report, the market value of U of T’s endowment per full-time equivalent student is about $22,000. For Victoria University, who has the highest endowment funds per full-time equivalent student of any university in the country, that number is closer to $111,000.
“URGENT NEED FOR LOW COST AND EFFECTIVENESS”
George Luste, former president of the UTFA, was less optimistic.
At the end of 2013, according to a presentation prepared in April 2014 by Allan Shapira of Aon Hewitt, a human resources consulting firm, the U of T pension fund ran a deficit of $1 billion — $3.05 billion in assets less $4.05 billion in going concern liabilities.
The university’s projected 2014-2015 operating revenues are about $2.04 billion.
In a presentation prepared for the UTFA, Luste argued that the university’s pension fund’s going concern liabilities are closer to $5 billion, if its real rate of return in the coming year is assumed to be 2.25 per cent — a more conservative estimate with which U of T budgeted in the early 1980s.
If Luste is correct, the university would need to draw about $200 million from its operations budget for 15 years to eliminate the pension fund’s deficit.
“I am very concerned about the pension future for the younger, be it in society or at our university,” he stated.
Luste went on to say that there is an “urgent need for low cost and effectiveness — in management and in the investment process.”
He also said that U of T ought to pursue a low-cost, largely passive investment management structure — as it did prior to UTAM’s founding — or risk repeating the mistakes of 2008 and 2009, when UTAM lost about $1 billion.
“There’s no accountability. Every time I bring this up, they say, ‘That’s in the past. Why are you thinking about the past?’ Well, I say, if you don’t figure out what you did wrong in the past, how are you going to do things right in the future?” Luste said.
Damiano said he could not identify the exact reason that the UTAM portfolio of assets performed poorly in 2008 and 2009.
However, Damiano said that, since 2009, UTAM has been restructured to lower its risk-appetite in exchange for lower expected returns so as to reduce the likelihood of such extreme losses in the future.
UTAM’s annual performance in the past five years has consistently beaten the benchmark portfolio’s.
Meet the man who keeps the university running
VP, university operations Scott Mabury aligns university’s operations with academic mission
Scott Mabury is the University of Toronto’s vice-president, university operations.
The office, which has only existed for about two-and-a-half years, is responsible for aligning facilities and services management and the university’s budget with its academic mission. It is also responsible for ancillary services, including food, parking, and certain campus residences.
In short, Mabury is tasked with optimizing the university’s relationship between its faculty members and students.
The Varsity met with Mabury to discuss the university’s operational challenges, tuition fees, and funding.
The Varsity: What is the biggest operational challenge facing the university today?
Scott Mabury: Our fundamental steady-state budget: revenues lag expenses. We have a structural budget challenge, which I talk about every year in the budget presentation. If we just froze the university now — the number of faculty and students, the number of undergraduate versus graduate students, the number of international versus domestic students — then there’s a gap between the revenues and expenses. Expenses, primarily, at the University of Toronto are salaries and benefits — compensation — which have been running close to five per cent… while revenues are close to three per cent… We deal with that by growing, by changing the mix going on. We try to control cost as much as possible, and we look for efficiencies… So my portfolio has a $50 million operational excellence target. We announced that November 1, 2013. Within five years from that announcement date, we will have identified $50 million in savings from operational excellence initiatives. So we project now, at the end of that five years, already we’ve identified about $46 million… The biggest challenge is constantly finding ways to be more efficient, more productive, [and] more excellent.
TV: Ontario is obviously dealing with funding issues. How does the university deal with the provincial funding shortfall?
SM: By operating smarter and better and trying to be as efficient and productive with the resources we have as possible. Our budget model — the Toronto budget model itself — is unique in all of Canada. There are lots of universities now mimicking it and adopting all of it, or making some portions of it their own. Many, if not most, are going this way because our budget model is, I believe, best in tune with our academic mission. The academic missions drives the budget that you put in the hands of deans and chairs at the front lines — and the front lines meaning between the faculty member and the student, because that’s why we’re here… Our budget model is best aligned with optimizing what happens there. That alignment means the university has weathered the challenges, [and] found opportunities… It is a challenge that all of our revenue streams — 87 per cent of our budget is connected to [students]. It comes from tuition and government grants. When I came to Simcoe Hall in 2009, the amount of dollars we got from tuition and the amount of dollars we got from government grant were perfectly matched. Now, it is 55 per cent to 34 per cent, I think. Tuition as a proportion of the pie has gone up; government grants have gone down… [The province] gives us more money total, but not per student. That’s the key.
TV: Has the provincial government given any indication that they will increase per-student funding?
SM: Nothing. So I’ll quote directly from The Globe and Mail — the article about providing funding for international graduate students. That was a high priority for us because the University of Toronto has not positioned itself to just do well in Ontario. It’s not positioned itself to just do well in Canada. It’s positioned itself to do well on a global scale. That means we do need to attract the best and brightest graduate students from the world here. We have not been doing that because there’s no funding for [foreign] graduate students in Ontario, while there is in other provinces. That’s the big difference between us and the UC Berkeley’s of the world, the [University of] Michigans, the [University of] Washingtons — these great public universities in the world. We have less the funding per student than they do… Even given these funding constraints, we are competing with the best in the world in all the rankings… The fact that the University of Toronto does well in all of them… is quite an accomplishment. The only explanation I have for that is that we simply accumulate really good decisions. We hire well; we make good decisions about how to design programs to attract the best students; we align our physical resources to support faculty, staff, and students in how they’re working… we make sure that we take the resources we have — irrespective of how much less they are than our comparators — and we make sure we spend them as wisely as possible.
TV: There’s been a lot of talk lately about rising international student tuition levels. Does international student tuition subsidize domestic student tuition?
SM: No — not in my view. We don’t parse out ‘What does an international student cost?’ versus ‘What does a domestic student cost?’ What we do know is that a domestic student attracts government grants. That’s a given. So certainly one of the things… is to capture that government grant differential. But the government grant is not the only taxpayer-supported investment in the university. One of those is the building you’re sitting in… The University of Toronto has 16 million square feet of space. If we had to build it again, multipled by $500 — a small number, and most of the people who work for me say it costs more than that — I think that works out to $8 billion or more. Those weren’t paid for by international students. Those were largely tax dollars or donations — but frankly, more tax dollars, overall. And then the $1.2 billion per year in research dollars… That’s almost all government funding. That’s taxpayer supported, meaning international students interface with that benefit of coming to a highly research-intensive and highly research-supported university. Part of the thing here is there’s differential tuition because the Canadian taxpayer is funding the university to a significant amount. For me, the question is: “Are these international tuition fees dissonant with the quality of the experience? Are they dissonant with comparable tuitions at universities we are in competition with, or comparable to us?”… For 14 years, the university has been raising international tuition fees. And for 14 years, the numbers of applicants has gone up and the yield has gone up. So the quality has gone up over that entire period, the numbers have gone up over that entire period. The evidence suggests that the University of Toronto, as a place to pursue postsecondary education, is viewed — on a global scale — as a great place to come.
TV: Do you see a maximum dollar cap on where international, and also domestic, tuition fees will go?
SM: No. That would be disastrous for the university… I don’t see employee groups saying: “I will freeze my salary and benefits.” I don’t see that happening in any domain anywhere in the world. Ultimately, that would cause a degradation of quality of experience. It would increase student-to-faculty ratios. If expenses are going up and revenues go to zero [per cent per year], we’re still paying average salary and benefit increases about five per cent. If you run that out, what happens? That’s the equivalent of saying: “The price of milk stays constant forever. So why would anyone milk any more cows?”
TV: So it’s foreseeable that it could surpass tuition levels in the United States?
SM: Well, certainly not under the current tuition fee framework in Ontario, held where they are at three per cent. I don’t see them ever catching up with Michigan, for example. And Michigan is our comparator. They have more than twice the dollars per student that we do… Back in the 1990s, tuition fee rates year-over-year were quite a bit higher. But the sticker price is the wrong question. Net tuition is a number that everyone in the United States follows carefully. How much do students actually pay of the posted price? We’ve been reporting that every year. The number for first-entry undergraduate students is 43 per cent, if you’re on OSAP, which about 54 or 55 per cent of students are.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity and length.
Lest we forget
Remembering the contributions of U of T soliders 100 years after the Great War
The artillery shell erupted violently from the mouth of a distant German howitzer with a plume of smoke and a resounding boom as one of the gun’s crew pulled the firing cord.
The machine recoiled with a metallic groan, shifting the earth beneath it and spitting the weighty projectile up into the October sky. Soaring in an arc high above the scarred French terrain, over the sparse deciduous coverage provided by the Somme estuary, the bombshell disappeared from sight in an instant.
It continued to sail for what must have seemed like hours, but was in reality only a few short seconds, before succumbing to gravity and beginning a steep decline, nose down, to deliver its destructive payload. Hurtling towards the earth at hundreds of metres a second, the artillery’s bursting charge was ignited by the fuse, causing the massive bullet to shed its heavy steel jacket in a violent ejection of hot, razor-like shrapnel in all directions.
Standing unawares, directly in the target zone of the shell, were four young company officers of the 73rd Battalion on reconnoitering duty, a few kilometres from the French-Belgian border at a place called Courcelette.
As the shell exploded a few feet overhead, it spit jagged steel on the men with enough force to embed pieces into trees and leave a devastating crater where they stood. The group of Canadians was killed instantly. Far away, the Germans removed their fingers from their ears and began preparing to fire the gun again.
Among the four officers caught in the blast was 25-year-old Lieutenant Paul Lyndon Armstrong. Along with hundreds of other young men killed in action during the Great War, Armstrong had come to France by way of the University of Toronto.
Some were killed in similar explosions, others were caught in chemical gas attacks, and more were collected from no-man’s land, having been pierced by enemy fire while rushing over the tops of trenches.
The view of the battlefields of Europe from above was startling. The once idyllic French terrain had been ravaged by battle. Verdant fields were pockmarked by shellfire; the clear blue skies were blotted out by smoke; the Atlantic breeze bore with it the stinging scent of sulfur. The notion of a beautiful French countryside-playing scene to the soldier’s proposed European adventure had been destroyed in an inferno — one that was quickly burning out of control.
A portrait of a soldier
Armstrong was born on September 17, 1890 in what was then known as Carleton, Ontario. The county would come to be called the Regional Municipality of Ottawa-Carleton in 1969, and later the city of Ottawa in 2001, many years after the smoke had cleared from Europe and another world war had taken place. The city is nestled on the south bank of the Ottawa River, less than 100 kilometres from the American border.
Armstrong enrolled at the University of Toronto to study political science in 1908 at the age of 18, spending four years at University College before graduating in 1912. A newspaper obituary, published upon his death, paints a flattering picture of a boy who was well-liked in his hometown. From the words on the page and the photo in blurry black and white, it is not too difficult to see why the young man was so popular.
There is a handsome symmetry to his features, his dark hair parted neatly in the middle above a set of dark and gentle eyes. He remained exceedingly popular while a student, maintaining a healthy social schedule, which made him friends from Toronto to Montréal.
Armstrong was a member of an eclectic series of clubs. He was in a fraternity, participated actively in collegiate athletics from tennis to hockey, and was renowned for being a competitive and capable athlete. An early photo from Torontonensis, U of T’s yearbook, shows a sharply dressed Armstrong cradling an impressive tennis trophy. When he graduated from University College, he moved a few streets south to Queen Street to study law at Osgoode Hall. He was called to the bar a few short weeks before he enlisted in 1915.
It might be easy, at first glance, to suggest that Armstrong bares no real similarities to the countless undergraduates who walk the halls and quadrangles of U of T’s three campuses today. Surely, a lot of time and change separates any of us from his experiences. However, that is not to say that modern students do not resemble him and his countrymen of a century ago — or at the very least, cannot find some threads of empathy for his time.
It was in Montréal that Armstrong enlisted in the army in 1915, along with others who were locals in the city. Armstrong was assigned to the fifth regiment of the battalion. He was one of many prospective Canadian soldiers recruited from Montréal and Almonte, Ontario to form the 73rd Battalion of the Canadian Expeditionary Force sent to fight and, tragically, die in France. Armstrong was appointed to the battalion in July of that year but would not be sent overseas until eight months later in March of 1916. His company arrived in August and fought through Belgium around the Ypres salient before being sent to the Somme.
At the time of his death, Armstrong was second-in-command of his company, a group of men who, by all accounts, were as fond of him as everyone else who had ever had the pleasure of meeting him. He was buried at a military cemetery in Albert, a small French commune that traces its historical roots back to an ancient Roman outpost.
A storm of steel
The engagement Armstrong found himself propelled into upon arriving in Europe had been initiated and catalyzed by actors and events that predated his involvement by years. In 1914, most of Europe went about its business completely unaware of the political and diplomatic powder keg resting beneath its feet.
It was a warm day on June 28, 1914 that found Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria seated with his wife in the back of an idling Graf & Stift Bois de Boulogne on a Sarajevo side street. The two were recuperating in the open carriage automobile after a failed assassination attempt — a grenade had been lobbed towards the vehicle during a parade moments before.
Gavrilo Principe was one of a group of young extremists belonging to a terrorist cell that had taken to calling itself the Black Hand. He and a number of others had gathered in Sarajevo that day with the express purpose of cutting down Ferdinand, a symbolic figure of the unwelcome imperial presence at the time.
After the earlier attempt on the Archduke’s life by one of his peers had failed, Principe spotted the target of the day’s objective sitting vulnerable in a car in front of him. Without a moment’s hesitation, Principe shot and killed Ferdinand and his wife, unwittingly setting into motion a series of disastrous events.
Within days, the great powers of Europe were at each other’s throats and drafting alliances and battle plans.
Two months later, in August, Canada was pulled into the conflict as a dominion of the now involved Britain. It was up to Canada, however, to determine what form of participation it would take. The day after Britain’s declaration of war on Germany, the Governor General of Canada — Prince Arthur, Duke of Connaught and Strathearn, a member of the British Royal Family — officially submitted a matching declaration on behalf of the dominion.
By this point, the war was already picking up significant momentum. Hostilities had erupted in the months preceding Canada’s introduction to the war in the form of the Austrian invasion of Serbia, with the German Schlieffen Plan already underway.
Ultimately, Canadians — including U of T students like Armstrong — would march into battle over the next four years, earning their stripes and building a reputation for their country at battles like the Somme, Vimy Ridge, and Passchendaele. They came from places with names like Guelph, Ontario — as in the case of Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae, a surgeon and poet — or Napanee, Halifax, and St. John’s. Their bodies were collected where they fell across Europe.
The motivations of Armstrong, McCrae, and the thousands of other Canadians who signed their names to support their country are difficult to appreciate in their totality. Some were surely driven by a deep sense of patriotic duty. Ties to their European forebears must have compelled some to stand with England. A number born in Canada would have been eager to join to prove the country’s mettle in its nascence.
But surely others were called to action at the prospect of adventure. The romance of it all is easily understood; the promise of glory set against the beautiful landscapes of Europe to combat the forces of evil danced in the minds of young men, untempered by the insights that would be provided by today’s media. Sparse communication from the lines would not, and could not, capture the brutality they were to face — the mud, the trenches, the gas.
When conscription came into effect late in the war, in January of 1918, the visions of glory had been crushed by letters and death notifications sent from the battlefields of Europe to anxious families at home. None were enticed by the possibilities of death, or loss, and yet it is what so many received.
Besides his headstone in Albert, Somme and the war memorial housed in Osgoode’s Great Library, Armstrong’s name can be found etched on the top right corner of the World War I memorial wall at Soldiers’ Tower on the St. George campus.
Every day, thousands of students pass his name — and those of 628 other members of the U of T community who gave their lives — as they walk across campus and under the grand archway of the monolithic tower. They walk, largely undisturbed — save for the passing concerns of due dates and exams — and mostly ambivalent to the magnitude of events that prompted the tower’s construction in the first place.
The university as it stands today is difficult to contextualize as an area for war. The firing range in Hart House has long been abandoned and there are no drills taking place on the newly turfed Back Campus. But, 100 years ago, every day for four years, students and staff milling about campus could not hope to avoid the presence of conflict; the war had come to them and, soon, many would step forward to meet it.
Hart House, which adjoins the Soldiers’ Tower, appeared strikingly different in the time that Armstrong and thousands of others used the university’s grounds to prepare for war. The structure itself was under construction throughout the period stretching from 1914-1918, though its incompletion did not stop the university from using it to train soldiers. It is fitting, then, that once the war had ended, its emblematic memorial would be built so close to the area where much of the university’s contribution to the war effort took place.
In a piece titled “Changed by War” in U of T Magazine, published earlier this year, Alice Taylor describes the extent to which Hart House was made available to the burgeoning Canadian forces in the early days of conflict: “Recruits marched in the Great Hall, the Royal Flying Corps set up workshops in the gymnasium, and the Military Hospitals Commission Command trained medical personnel, including women nurses and rehabilitation specialists, in what are now the Debates and Music Rooms,” she writes.
It is difficult to imagine having your walk between lectures or your midday coffee run interrupted by the sudden cracking of musket fire in shooting drills. There is something both playful and naïve about pre-war accounts of training on the university’s grounds. Images of students rushing to bayonet sand bags or navigating artificial terrain designed to resemble blown-out French and Belgian towns carry a sense of frivolity. Campus today does not lend itself well to large sustained military exercises — nor to imagining that these activities were once commonplace.
On a Friday in late January of 1921, the Memorial Committee of the University of Toronto’s Alumni Association delivered a letter to the university’s administration to request the requisite funds to finish construction on a memorial for the university’s war dead.
The alumni were able to raise $397,141 towards a stone clock and bell tower in the Gothic Revival style.
Canada’s then Governor General Victor Cavendish ninth Duke of Devonshire, laid the tower’s cornerstone in 1919, one year after the final shots of the war. The tower contains a Memorial Room that houses a collection of U of T’s war memorabilia. Patinated medals, tattered flags, and dog-eared historical volumes sit safely under glass alongside original photographs and letters.
100 years later
In the century since World War I ended, much has changed. Though time does not erase the sacrifices of Armstrong and the countless other Canadians who gave their lives in the Great War, it does blur their memories. It is easy for students to pass beneath Soldiers’ Tower and by the tribute wall without thinking of the individuals that the etched characters commemorate.
It is not that students don’t remember; they couldn’t possibly be asked to. It is not that they don’t attend memorial services. Rather, perhaps they don’t appreciate that the war years, now a fixture in history textbooks, are not so long ago, and that the lives of young soldiers were not so different from their own.
Each year, for a few fleeting days at the start of November, red flowers make appearances on the coats of students, staff, and faculty crossing campus. For a moment on November 11 at 11:00 am, many will pause in silence, perhaps to think about a time when campus wasn’t so peaceful in the shroud of late fall, and when youth was inextricably tinged with the uncertainty of war.
These symbols — the tower, the wreaths, the recitations of McCrae’s powerful verse — represent our collective history. They preserve the memories of those who gave their lives and implore us to learn — to notice the individual names etched on the tower, and discover the stories behind them.
U of T plans centennial commemorations for World War I
The Varsity presents a look at Remembrance Day activities on U of T’s three campuses
World War I took the lives of 66,000 Canadians and wounded another 172,000.
Of the Canadians lost, 628 were students at the University of Toronto, leaving a legacy of devastation and sacrifice.
Every year on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month, Canadians observe a two-minute silence to remember those who were killed, wounded, or scarred psychologically and physically by the war.
On Tuesday, the university will be holding a number of services to honour the fallen soldiers of both the First and Second World War, as well as other Canadian military involvements.
The annual Service of Remembrance will take place at Soldier’s Tower on November 11 from 10:20 am to 11 am. The service, which is organized by the Soldier’s Tower Committee, will include a recitation of “In Flanders Fields” — the famous poem by University College alumnus John McCrae — as well as national and royal anthems and a laying of wreaths.
A reception in Hart House will follow the service.
The university’s Scarborough and Mississauga campuses will also be holding services. At UTSC, the annual Remembrance Day service will take place on November 11 at 10:40 am in the Meeting Place featuring the UTSC concert band and concert choir.
At UTM, the Remembrance Day Observance will take place on November 11 at 10:45 am at the flagstaff in front of the William G. Davis building.
The Memorial Room, located in soldier’s tower, will also be open on select days. The room contains memorabilia honouring the university’s fallen soldiers.